I Believe

Photo by matt cohen / cowboy journal

Photo by matt cohen / cowboy journal

I tried to stay confident and focused. I’ve got one job, I told myself. Rope the steer by two feet.

by Trey Yates

There I was, on horseback in the alley at the Thomas & Mack Arena on opening night of the 2018 National Finals Rodeo. The Super Bowl of rodeo. Every cowboy’s dream. When the Grand Entry music started playing, I was holding the Colorado flag. My right leg started moving, and I couldn’t make it stop. It was nerves and adrenaline and excitement all balled into one. I could hardly grasp the fact that I was here.

I’m twenty-three and have been pro rodeoing since 2013, but this was my first time as an NFR qualifier. I didn’t have a routine yet. I didn’t know and didn’t want to ask. I like to do my own thing. The next thing I knew, it was my turn to ride out into the arena. I loped a couple of circles and eased around the building watching what everybody else was doing. They say riding in the Grand Entry on your first night is the best feeling in the world, and they’re right.

But then later, when it’s time for your Round One perf, and you’re waiting in the alley and can hardly see your rope and all of a sudden you ride into the arena and they announce your name and however many thousands of people are seated in the Thomas & Mack, and you’re the center of attention, man, no words can describe the feeling.

The hard part about the NFR is you gotta keep it real. It’s not a show. This is a business. You have to rope like you’re at any other rodeo. But at the same time, it’s in the back of your head—you’re at THE National Finals Rodeo. You can’t get star struck. I wasn’t star struck that first night, but I was nervous. I felt ready up until the first round, and then I was like, It’s here! After all the work and waiting, all of a sudden it was on.

I’m still not sure how I held things together that first night. I kept my head down and didn’t watch anybody else rope on the screen. I just tried to do my job the best I can. I was heeling for Aaron Tsinigine. This was his third NFR. He won a gold buckle in 2015. That first night, our steer was strong. Aaron’s rope ran a little bit, and I got pinched to the inside and kind of slowed up my rope. As the steer was going left, I hooked a leg. I can honestly say that’s one of the first times in my career that I roped a leg and smiled. We were 10 seconds. I didn’t compete to the fullest of my ability that night. I knew I was capable of roping two feet, but I dang sure wasn’t too upset. I knew if I had an emotional breakdown out there, things would take a turn for the worse. There’s so much money to win every night and so many steers to run that you can’t get down on yourself. We had a steer caught and that’s not always the easiest thing to do in that building.

Nine rounds left, and we were still in the hunt.

One thing I learned is that when you’re at the NFR, you get a lot of coaching from spectators and people watching on TV. People will say hurtful things. I was signing autographs that second day and people kept asking what happened. Well, I don’t know if you watched it, but I roped a leg. I mean, what do you want me to say? You just have to blow that stuff off.

Photo by Matt Cohen

Photo by Matt Cohen

Growing Up

One of hardest things I’ve had to do is learn how to believe in myself. I work hard. I give a hundred-and-fifty percent every time I back in box. But I hate losing. I want to win so bad it kills me. I hate having chances for good money and messing them up. It’s just hard to accept. And part of believing in yourself is accepting those times when you lose.

My Dad always told me, I believe in you, but until you believe in yourself, you won’t be successful.

In June of last year, I achieved a longtime goal of mine by winning the College National Finals Rodeo. That boosted my confidence. And then a couple weeks after that Aaron and I won the Reno Rodeo. That was a turning point. After that, I knew what I was capable of. But I still had some growing up to do.

Towards the end of August, at the rodeo in Kennewick, Washington, I missed two steers. Actually, they were good spins. I heeled them both, but the steers got out of it.

I was so upset I threw my rope at my trailer. Then I called my Dad.

“Why can’t I do my job?” I asked him. “It ain’t that hard. I’ve done it all year. What’s wrong with me?”

“If that’s how you’re gonna act, I don’t want to talk to you,” he said.

I don’t blame him. He was right.

I’m kind of an instigator. I called him looking for an argument, but he wouldn’t give me one. When I was a teenager, I maybe had an excuse, because I was young. But last summer, I didn’t have an excuse. You’re a grown man in a grown man’s game, I told myself. You can’t call home and whine to Daddy. If you do, you’re gonna get your ass kicked out there.

I got over it, and the next day I won the rodeo in Bremerton, Washington. I won forty-five hundred dollars. That was proof to myself that if you can overcome those things, it can work out.

When I got to the National Finals, I knew if I didn’t believe in myself by then, I might as well not be there. When you make the NFR, you’re one of the fifteen best guys in the world that year. You gotta believe it, because it’s a fact. This is a mental game, and if you don’t believe in yourself, you’re gonna get beat, because there are a lot of guys who rope better than me and they know they’re good. I knew I could do my job. I just had to let my roping do the talking.

Photo by Matt Cohen

Photo by Matt Cohen

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Doing My Job

I can’t say my nerves were gone by Round Two. But when the steer was kind of getting away from me, I was able to slow everything down in my mind and take an extra swing, and that let me heel two feet. I did my job. That’s what got me to the NFR, doing my job. That night we were 4.8 and placed fifth.

In Round Three, I didn’t heel the steer on the first hop. I took what felt to me like a high-percentage shot, but my horse, Dude, stopped, and I got the steer above the hocks and dallied on a short rope. That strong finish made the difference in the clock. We were 4.1 and split second and third. After that, I was all in. I felt fully confident. There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to catch. I don’t know if that sounds cocky, but that’s the confidence I had.

Part of my confidence, of course, comes from my horse. Dude can really run. He stops hard. And he finishes really good. Those are pretty good qualities to have in the Thomas & Mack. Dude has fast feet, and he’s aggressive in his stop. When I dally and put it on the horn, he pulls the steer back. There’s no give. There are times when he’ll nicker. I think he just likes it. He likes stopping hard, and he likes jerking the ass out of steers. He’s kind of a fire-breathing dragon. He watches the cow. He pins his ears. He’s a lot of horse.

At the halfway point, after five rounds, we were one of only four teams that had caught all their steers. And then Round Six happened. Man, that was a wild night. Weird things happened that you would never expect.

We were the first team out that night. Aaron broke the barrier, and I roped a leg. With the fifteen seconds added, we were 19.5. I was pretty disgusted with myself, but at least we caught our steer. By the end of the round, ten of the teams missed their steers. Our 19.5 earned us fifth place money. Even better, we were the only team left that hadn’t missed a steer. We were leading the average.

It goes to show you, there are no guarantees, especially in that building. When you’ve got ten nights of roping, anything can happen.

At that point, we controlled our own destiny.

There were two steers in the bunch that nobody wanted. They had Xs by their names. In Round Seven, we drew one of them. It was a strong steer that nobody had caught yet.

I tried to stay confident and focused. I’ve got one job, I told myself. Rope the steer by two feet.

Aaron nodded. The steer ran hard, but Aaron got a rope around him. I caught him, too, and even though I kind of missed my dally, we were 4.9 and placed sixth in the round.

We caught all three of our final steers—the only team to catch all ten—and won the average.

My first three years in the PRCA, I was fortunate enough to team up with a proven winner, my Dad. J.D. Yates has qualified for twenty-one NFRs. Until last month, I wore his 2002 NFR steer-roping average buckle for ten years. That guy tries harder than anybody I’ve ever roped with. He tried so hard for me. He just wanted to see me do good. During those few years of roping together, we had success, but we had a lot of fun, too, which was better than anything. To be able to share those memories? I tell you what, man, those are the best times I’ve ever had rodeoing.

Last month in Vegas, when Round Ten was over, and I’d won the team roping average, Dad was in tears. He’s not usually an emotional guy, but he could hardly talk. He gave me a hug and told me he loved me.

They say the average buckle is the second best in the PRCA. It’s kind of crazy: Dad finished his last NFR in 2002 an average champion, and I finished my first an average champion. To be able to take his average buckle off and wear my own was pretty special.

Photo by Matt Cohen

Photo by Matt Cohen


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